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War Witch

Rebelle 2012 | 90 min | R | 2.39:1

War Witch


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Theatrical release date

 01 March, 2013

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War Witch Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, February 2, 2013

“War Witch” isn’t a message-minded film looking to expose the horrors of the world in a coldly academic manner. It’s a character piece with a loosely defined narrative, with an unusual sense of stillness to depict matters of tremendous horror. Writer/director Kim Nguyen constructs a harrowing portrait of innocence lost with minimal hysteria, finding a richer sense of experience by restraining graphic violence and contrived characterization. Infused with Terrence Malick spices, “War Witch” aims for ambiance as a way to approach its searing images of war, keeping the viewer unnerved instead of outraged when inspecting the troubles of Africa.

In an undisclosed area of Sub-Saharan Africa, a 12-year-old girl named Komona (Rachel Mwanza) has recently been kidnapped by a rebel group, forced to gun down her own parents and enter a ragtag military force that worships weaponry and the unknown. Branded a witch by leader Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga) due to her ability to spot the enemy with ease, Komona tries to lead a solitary life in the unit, but can’t escape the violence of her daily existence, finding comfort in the presence of fellow soldier Magicien (Serge Kanyinda). As time passes, Magicien is determined to make Komona his wife, eventually breaking away from Great Tiger to find some sense of peace with his uncle’s family, hoping to acquire the fabled white rooster to seal the union. However, tragedy haunts Komona’s every step, with the ghosts of the dead hounding the girl to settle past sins, urging her to protect what’s left of her future.

The story of “War Witch” is told from Komona’s point of view, whispering her experiences to her unborn child, with the father not immediately established. She’s 14 years of age with the weariness of a senior citizen, having observed more traumatic events in her formative years than the average person should experience in ten lifetimes. She’s a calloused teen recalling the events that redirected her life, remembering a time when she was a farm girl in her village, before the Great Tiger force placed an AK-47 into her hands and ordered her to kill her parents (her refusal meant their murder would be carried out with a rusty machete). “War Witch” covers just over two years in the Komona’s life, watching her adapt to the rebel routine, learning to use her weapon and deal with others while forced to ingest a milky hallucinogenic substance drained from local trees, keeping the child soldiers amendable to warfare.

While Nguyen is careful to detail Komona’s suffering to best isolate the zombification of the character as she develops from a terrified kid to a hardened survivor, “War Witch” is a surprisingly tasteful effort. Violence is everywhere, but there’s no sense of punishment, grinding the viewer’s face in the general disregard for human life. I expected the picture to be more graphic than it actually is, with suggestion far more wearying, including a particularly chilling moment where Komona, fearful of her continued use as a sexual plaything for a ruthless commander, stuffs a vegetable loaded with a razor blade inside her to prevent further abuse. The mere idea of this act is frightening. Mercifully, Nguyen doesn’t labor over the gruesome details. Overall, “War Witch” doesn’t need to provide much evidence to make its case of corruption, with the raw, amateur performances and general emotional tone of the film carrying considerable weight.

Also of interest in “War Witch” is the story’s exploration of superstition, finding Komona assigned powers by the Great Tiger leader due to her luck and gifts of detection, while multiple scenes observe rituals intended to deify weaponry. Despite the cold reality of steel and wood in their hands, the uneducated soldiers remain respectful of the unknown, calling on magic to assign purpose to senselessness.

Despite an opening half that sets out on a specific dramatic trajectory, “War Witch” eventually erodes into a viewing experience with less definition, crawling to a resolution that doesn’t match the early concentration of the material. It’s a strange loss of focus despite a tense string of confrontations for Komona as she struggles to reclaim what’s left of her sanity. “War Witch” retains a crushing feel for this world and its vicious ways, and perhaps the aimlessness is ultimately intentional, accurately reflecting a young life that’s made peace with despair, wandering along on a mission to fully comprehend the hell she’s endured.

Starring: Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda, Mizinga Mwinga
Director: Kim Nguyen

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